unstrung, strung up, strung out or restrung?

How interesting. A website showing you just how widespread the BBC network of journalists is. Take note of the African continent. Look hard at the map. You don’t see a triangle in Algeria do you? But there is a ‘stringer’ there, who has risked his life for years for Auntie. What about Libya? Yes, there’s another brave stringer there. Namibia? Yes, well, less brave, but there is one there, too. And then screw your eyes up for the tiny bunch of West African countries – like Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Senegal – you can see nothing. But there are – or in some cases were – stringers there, too. Some still exist. Some have been fired (or dropped) for no good reason at all other than fast-vanishing BBC World Service budgets (which noone at the Foreign Office – which funds Bush House, though few know it – wants to talk about very much). Some have had to flee their base (and their home) because of leaders like Yaya Jammeh – and the BBC has said or done absolutely nothing at all. Some just live in places that the BBC no longer deems particularly important. Some have died (and some from curable diseases, but with no health insurance to cover them they have simply passed away).

Funny that my name is on the list of stringers. But I haven’t been a BBC stringer for nearly a year. The BBC does not have a stringer in Angola now. The country is ‘covered’ (up) by one of the bigger bureaux – just like a whole lot of other countries which don’t really matter unless another war breaks out or a drought leading to famine occurs or some other reportable disaster easily-enough digestible for the minds of BBC ‘news managers’.

I would like to see, not a map of bureaux, correspondents & stringers, but a corresponding map of how the BBC values those people. You see, one of the things the BBC does supremely well is boasting to the world about how many reporters and journalists it has across the planet, all scurrying away like ants, digging for information to bring you – dear valued public – news from across the globe. What the BBC does even better is paying people very little who live and work in some of the most testing and dangerous places in the world, forgetting about them when they get into trouble with the local dictator, and firing them when the government says it isn’t interested in having some trouble-making reporter in a country of interest to British businessmen. And you don’t even really need to fire stringers because their contracts, as my legal minded brother once pointed out, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Yes. I’d like to see a map of which BBC journalists are valued so much that they are given a nice car, a nice house, a nice pension, health insurance and paid holidays; and which BBC stringers are valued so little, they are bought a return-ticket if they’re lucky, a BBC laptop if they’re even luckier, and a coffin when they die from malaria – or the like. I’d also like to see the nationality of those people. I’d like to see how many ‘local’ stringers – as they are known so patronisingly – are in the latter group, and how many self-important British ‘correspondents’ are in the former group. That would really tell you, the audience, where the BBC’s real shared values are; and just how much the BBC values the values it promotes on its programmes (about democracy and Bob’s love for Africa and transparency and equality); and exactly what it is that the BBC directors mean when they tell their staff ‘We’re One BBC’.

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4 thoughts on “unstrung, strung up, strung out or restrung?

  1. Unfortunately the world is full of hypocrisy. I think it’s even more upsetting in the case of corporations that are suppose to embody certain values. And even though I’ve always found it very hard to trust “values” of any big corporation, bbc for me was always associated with principles of credibility, trust and basically high standards. For example, I always remember my mother referring to periods in Angola 30 or 40 years ago when the only source of trustworthy information for the population was the bbc, and times when people even had to listen to the station in hiding. In many places around the world at the moment bbc stills fulfils that responsibility.
    So I find it very sad to see this disrespect on the same people that made this organisation what it is. At the same time, it’s hardly surprising. In a huge company almost 100 years old, some of the values are lost and like any other multinational the important decisions are being made by burocrats who are out of touch of what’s happening on the ground and at a very high human cost.

  2. I’m not sure I share your views on this, which I think are too strong (maybe your aim is to provoke a response). I pay for my own flat in Abidjan, my retainer doesn’t cover my medical insurance, I have no pension and I paid for my flight here (though I get a return flight once a year). I have access to a BBC car when it’s free, but that certainly wasn’t the case when I was the stringer in Congo-Brazzaville and I have a BBC laptop.

    Nevertheless, I feel I earn enough money, and even in Brazzaville I earned enough money. Less it has to be said than I did in my very first job as a local BBC reporter four years ago, but I’m undoubtedly relatively rich in a country that’s relatively inexpensive. As far as I know, and with the possibly exception of Dow Jones, the BBC seems to pay more per report than any other news agency / international media outlet. Budgets are being reduced, but I still feel it a privilege to be in Ivory Coast.

    As the web map of correspondents / stringers says, it was created from by-lines on articles on the website – and so doesn’t reflect the day to day coverage on the World Service from a much wider range of stringers. The Africa service have separate morning and evening stringers in Liberia as well as regular reports from Tidiane Sy in Senegal and fairly regular reports from Guinea and Randy Saleh in Cameroon to name just a few. It’s true that ‘One BBC’ doesn’t mean we’re all treated equally when it comes to attention or resources, but when I was the only English language correspondent for any media organisation in Congo-Brazzaville I couldn’t help feeling it showed something about the willingness of the BBC to send people to corners of the world most people don’t know exist.

    Maybe I’m naive, but I accept the deal, I can’t help feeling most of my better paid friends in the UK would too. I’m open minded on this, but I just don’t feel the BBC is as bad as you make out.

  3. Vania, thank you for your response. And John, for yours. I hope, Vania, you see John’s to get another side of the story…

    And John, I don’t think you are entirely wrong. I’ll try to respond point by point. First up, no, I don’t blog to try and provoke a response. I blog to stay sane (or perhaps, to ward off further insanity). If I wanted to provoke a response, I would have stayed with Auntie shouting and stamping my feet at the endless meetings, and never managing to change a thing.

    I see where you are coming from: you, as, I think, a white European (British? am I right? wrong?) reporter for the BBC. You don’t fit the profile you feel I’ve hinted at in my blog? Is that right? But you – I think – are (like I was) one of the few who slips between the stools. Although foreign (i.e. not African), you are not on a comfortable salary in a regional job. Abidjan is a good post, and always has been (you have a BBC office for starters – more than many), but it is not entirely representative of the working conditions for many of the stringers on the continent (who work from home, for example). You are working as a stringer essentially for the African service; you are not in a regional bureau as staff. Nevertheless, as a man with links back to the main base, you are fortunate in that you can file for programmes beyond the Africa service. You are taken seriously by newsgathering (to use the Beeb jargon for the central news hub), which many stringers from Africa with ‘African accents’ (Who? What?) cannot. Apparently, listeners find it harder to understand, for example, the northern Nigerian or the southern Sudanese, than he/she does the nice lad/ladess who can ‘do’ the Beeb voice so beautifully. This makes a difference: it means it is easier for you (as it was for I) to earn ‘enough’ money to live off. I would add a caveat to that however: some countries are cheaper than others. Rwanda, I’m told, costs a lot if you want to live there and file at the speed the BBC expects. The British pound goes much further in Johannesburg, for example, than it does in, say, Luanda. So what is relatively inexpensive for one, is bloody tough for the other. What’s more, many of us Brits who go out there do not have a family of 10 to feed. We have just ourselves, and, occasionally a partner. (I could go into a whole monologue about female reporters and how they are treated when they marry or, God forbid, have a baby – but I’ll save that for another time…)

    I’m not sure that’s true about BBC payments. It’s hard to compare a 1-minute report with a Reuters print piece. IRIN also pay well and let the material run on longer. And I don’t know about Dow Jones et al. It is true, though, that the money that is being spent by media houses across the board is shrinking when it comes to foreign correspondents. Why else does the BBC et al take their ‘Africa correspondent’ (i.e. their Man in Joburg) to Iraq when the war breaks out?

    And yes, there are stringers across Africa reporting. But John, there were more and there were others. I won’t write about them by name here – it’s for them to speak out – but I know them, I speak to them and we share our mutual anger and dislike of the way they, in particular, have been treated/dropped/dumped by the organisation. And there are stringers right now who can barely make enough money to live off because of the endless budget cuts at Bush. Gone are the days when a live two-way could be done at the last minute on Focus 3rd edition because of union strike in the back of beyond of Chad: the budget never stretches. Moreover, if the stringer can’t do it ‘in quality’ the corporation doesn’t want to know. Forget news content – it’s got to sound like the man sheltering from bombs in south Sudan is sitting next door in a first-rate studio! (Ok, she doth exaggerate a wee bit there… but you get my point).

    To end, all I would say to you is this. When I joined the Beeb, a pile of disgruntled older staff were continually warning me to contain my enthusiasm. ‘Just you wait…’ they’d say. I used to think they were a cynical old crowd of losers… And I was wrong. As I began to learn what the corporation does to its own – both higher up and lower down the supply chain from me – I became increasingly angry myself. So, dear John, ‘Just you wait….’

    And in the meantime, make the most of it: when Auntie’s on your side, it’s wonderful. And you are right – then, it seems like you’ve got the best job in the world. Enjoy!

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